A la Vieille Russie

by Giannina Braschi

 

I saw a beautiful daguerreotype of a poet, in a shop window, dressed as a Harlequin.  I am not sure if it was Baudelaire or Artaud.  It had the eyes of Baudelaire and the nose and the mouth of Artaud.  What are my masters doing in the window of A La Vieille Russie. I entered and to my surprise behind the counter was Vasily Vasilich Gurevich, the owner of the most exquisite Optik in New York, between Madison and Park Avenue, on 61th Street.  From him I had acquired a collection of antique glasses from Russia, France, and China.
--Gurevich, what are you doing here?  Business must be going well.  Congratulations!  Now you have two of the finest boutiques.
--Braschi, not really, I had to close my Optik.
--Oh, no, my Optik.      
--The economy, Braschi.  After September 11, I didn’t sell a pair of glasses in three months.  If it’s not made in the USA, it doesn’t move. How could I pay the rent.  I had to close the business and get a job here.  Look at this cabinet.  I have these glasses that were from my Optik.  Try these on.
--No, what I love here is the installation.   The theatrical experience.  It’s not only the glasses, it is where you hang them.  From the eye socket of a skull, that is Optik unique. 
--Braschi, if I tell you it belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.  Would you believe it?
--The glasses?
--The skull. 
--Look here, at the inscription on the back.  Squelette, qu’as-tu fait de l’ame.  It was a gift from Victor Hugo to Sarah Bernhard.  And she used this skull as her prop in her legendary production of Hamlet.  You know, Braschi, the Brits criticized Bernhardt because it was too white and clean--and it was not believable that this white skull could have been under the earth for more than 23 years.  And she looked at the skull with adoration when she should have dropped it with disgust following the stage directions. 
--What a mentality, I tell you!  Of course, she was fascinated.  To see her future condensed in her past.  Because the beauty of contemplating a skull--is that when you look at it--it is the moment when the past and the future unite in the present.  Only in a skull do you see what you were and what you will be.  I tell you, when my friends heard about the collapse--some of them smiled and wished me dead.  They were happy.  One of them said:
--Finally, the Empire is falling.  This is the beginning of the upset.  What a defeat.
--Not because they fall, will you rise.  Why are you gloating? 
--Because the fall will make other towers rise.
--Okay, okay.  But the towers that will rise will not be the ones that laughed when our towers fell.  It’s not the laughter that rises.  What rises is the curtain. 
--What is a ruin?
--What remains as a thought--without a body--a ghost of dust and soot and debris.
--Would a skeleton be a ruin?
--Yes, but not a ghost.
--But why do ghosts appear in ruins.  Why are their apparitions more certain when you have a skull in front of you.  And even more disturbing.
--Because, I suppose, you have there the condensation of spirit and matter.
--Matter that is dead as a ducat, dead.
--Because both are ruins--and reminders of what was a memo, a syllabus, a foot note.  If you tell me to choose between flesh and bone.  I’m a dog.  I take the bone because I have something to grasp.  And figure out.  Something to bury.  And dig up again. 
--And the body
--You mean, the flesh.  Ah, well, you know, the flesh flashes like teeth but doesn’t have the durability.  Phone books are cemeteries.  That’s why my number is unlisted.  We are somber creatures--with inclinations that twist us over edges as unpredictable as the flashback that is a ghost.
--Now, look at the flood lights.
--It looks like the projection on a movie screen.
--Look at the diversity of shadows--projections of ruins--reminding us: Keep hope alive!  Keep digging!  Maybe you’ll find a hero in an air pocket where a bird laid an egg. 
--Look at this twisted stump of petrified bone.  A still life vanitas, a memento mori of what is left after we’re all gone. 
--See how, how a being after it is underground for more than 8 years can still have hands and ribs and toes without a pound of flesh to cover the loins, that are my bone marrow structure, my skeleton, my horse, my hobbyhorse.  That is when the ghost comes in--and digs in—and drills into the skull all what inspiration is about.
--About what? 
--Teeth.  Teeth that smile with little holes--pockets--air pockets--where a tongue can show its side--wet--to what avail. 
--No purpose what so ever. 
--Except the liberation of thoughts.
--Hear the smoke of the ambulance.  Ambulances always come with clouds of smoke.  And then they disappear in a whistle.  But what they bring is fear.  Not freedom.  Feardom is what they bring.  And they bring fire and smoke.  Oh, my nerves are bad tonight, yes, bad.  I fear freedom.  I, above all, fear the freedom that is above all feardom.
--This is too eerie for my ears to hear.
--Be placed at the ear of the conference like the dead body of Polonius that I carry on my back.  And be happy.  The worst remains behind this stump of luck.   What do I see. Whose burial.  Ophelia’s.  No, it can’t be. 
--It is a coffin.  It looks like a pack of cigarettes.  But it’s a box of matches with nails inside.  Who are they burying?
--The businessman.
--Who. 
--The man who was petite. The man who was bourgeois.  The man who was the center of the class, the class called petite bourgeoisie. The man who mastered the art of the deal--the dealer of dirty deeds--dirty deeds exist to wash them out--and come clean--like my uncle always says with the smile of the villain on his face.  And that is what I see behind these metal bars--the smile of the villain--the ghostly smile of the villain--and the Arab’s greasy beard--that as a ghostly apparition is here inclined on the smile of the villain--emerging from a cloud of mushroom and fear.
--When those two towers fell, I felt a dentist had pulled out my two front teeth.  I could not laugh anymore. And I have the smile of a smiling damned villain.  But I also felt the hole in my mouth became the Battery Park tunnel, and entering that tunnel were terrorists in trucks full of explosives and French diplomats--to fuck us more with other nations--to run over our dead bodies.
--Bury the one--bury the other--bury the twins--Muslim and American--Arab and Jew.  Don’t be unilateral.  See the other’s point of view.  You are the whipper, cowboy. You whip and whip and whip--and attack, attack, and attack.  Do you know how to cover your ass.  The attacker is never prepared to cover his ass.  And to be fucked up the ass.  But you will be fucked up the ass because you have fucked up the others too many times.  Nobody knows you better than the one that you abuse.  And I can talk.  I know you well. 
--You thought the legs are not important—but now that Liberty has no legs—it can’t walk.  And you thought legs mean labor--and you could find cheap labor in Mexico and in China.  So you broke the legs off Lady Liberty—looking for cheap labor—and found terrorists with explosives.  You went for cheap--forgetting that cheapness is cutting liberty off at the knees.  Now we cannot walk.  What do you want us to do?  Find cheap legs in other countries that will walk for us?   You always thought: if they want to walk--it’s because they’re poor.  We use our cars and jets.  But you forgot that fuel is a luxury and that it would end.  Oil is coming to an end--and now we have no legs to walk. 
--I thought the brain could rule over the legs.  And I thought the brain was white and the legs were yellow or brown.  And I thought I could rule with my brain--even if I cut my legs--I would find cheap legs in other parts of the world.  But now I am a mutilated body. I lost my legs in Korea.  I lost my arms in Vietnam.  I lost my head in Kuwait.  I lost my torso in the World Trade Center.